I hadn’t heard the obscure song since I was growing up, but hearing it recently reminded me of an important leadership principle. The song was, “Indiana Wants Me,” about a guy who killed a man, because that man had insulted the guy’s wife or something. The guy flees Indiana, and the cops are after him, so he sings, “Indiana Wants Me, oh I can’t go back there.”
Yeah, it’s hokey, but it back in the day. Today it’d be a Reality Show.
So one day back then, the song was on the radio, and my Mom’s aunt, who lived with us while I was growing up, heard it. When it was over, Aunt Mary said, “It must be about someone who works in a zoo, and that’s why he’s singing, ‘All The Animals Want Me, oh I can’t go back there.’” Animals?
It made perfect sense if you knew Aunt Mary. You see, she loved animals, really loved them. She was always out playing with our dog, feeding the birds, taking care of our pet turtle. She once said it was almost as sad when an animal died, as when a person died. I mean she LOVED animals.
That’s why when the lyrics sounded a bit fuzzy to her, Aunt Mary just filled the gap with animals. And that beautifully illustrates the Vacuum Principle.
The Vacuum Principle means that when confronted with an information vacuum, we tend to fill that vacuum, usually with information reflecting our frame of reference. Just like Aunt Mary did.
This principle can cause all sorts of problems in the business world, which is why leaders need to know about it if they want to be more effective.
The Vacuum Principle, which applies to individuals and groups, happens frequently. I was working once with a company that had several departments. I was with the VP of Manufacturing, and several of his direct reports, when the phone rang.
After a brief conversation, the VP hung up, turned to the other managers and said angrily, “You won’t believe this! R&D wants all the numbers on the XYZ project!”
Immediately the room buzzed, with everyone speculating why R&D would request that. “They want to show us up at the next management meeting!” “They’re sticking us with the blame for that production problem last week!” “No, they’re trying to reduce our quarterly bonus by presenting us in a bad light!”
Finally, I interrupted, asking if R&D had said WHY they wanted the numbers. The VP said no, and that he hadn’t asked, since R&D would probably have lied. Manufacturing, I found out, had a long history of problems with R&D, so that Manufacturing’s frame of reference automatically interpreted the request in a paranoid way.
Later, when I was working with the R&D managers, they couldn’t believe Manufacturing had been suspicious. And R&D’s reason for asking for the numbers seemed reasonable to me. Why hadn’t they explained their reasoning with the request? “Those guys in Manufacturing, they would have nitpicked with more questions.”
So, both sides were working from their frames of reference, but the point isn’t which was right. Both frames of reference were valid to a certain extent, but if R&D had tried to “fill the vacuum” by explaining their intent, it might have been a first step in improving communications between the two.
Two important points from the Vacuum Principle.
- Never leave people with an information vacuum. This means we may have to take a little more time to explain our intentions.
- Always have a good grasp of the other person’s frame of reference.
Together, these two points will help you avoid problems, or solve them more quickly and effectively if they do arise.
How often do you communicate intent so that a vacuum doesn’t exist? What are you doing to understand another person’s (or department’s) frame of reference? How would Aunt Mary have interpreted Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven?